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Absurdism

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English Literature

We hang on tightly to our daily routines, careers, and goals because we don't want to face the idea that our lives may have no meaning. Even though many of us don't subscribe to a religion or believe in life after death, we believe in financial stability, buying a house and a car, and achieving a comfortable retirement.

Does it not feel a bit absurd, though, that we work hard to make money to sustain ourselves, only to keep working hard so we can keep sustaining ourselves? Are our lives trapped in an absurd cycle in which we go around in circles to avoid the problem of the absurd? Have these goals become our secular gods?

Absurdism tackles these questions and more, examining the tension between our need for meaning and the universe's refusal to provide it. Absurdity became a serious philosophical problem in the 20th century, an era that saw two World Wars. Twentieth-century philosophers, prose writers, and dramatists turned their attention to this problem and tried to present and confront it in prose and drama form.

Content warning: This article deals with topics of a sensitive nature.

Absurdism's meaning in literature

Before we dive into the roots of the literature of the absurd, let's start with two key definitions.

The absurd

Albert Camus defines the absurd as the tension created by humanity's need for meaning and the universe's refusal to provide any. We can find no evidence for the existence of God, so all we are left with is an indifferent universe where bad things happen without a higher purpose or justification.

If you don't completely understand the concept of the absurd right now, that's ok. We'll get into the philosophy of Absurdism later.

Absurdism

In literature, Absurdism refers to literary works produced from the 1950s to the 1970s that present and explore the absurd nature of existence. They took a good look at the fact that there is no inherent meaning in life, yet we keep on living and keep trying to find meaning. This was achieved by being themselves absurd in form or plot, or both. Literary absurdity involves the use of unusual language, characters, dialogue and plot structure that give works of absurdist literature the quality of ridiculousness (absurdity in its common definition).

Although 'Absurdism' as a term does not refer to a unified movement, we can, nonetheless, view the works of Samuel Beckett, Eugene Ionesco, Jean Genet, and Harold Pinter, among others, as constituting a movement. The works of these playwrights all focused on the absurd nature of the human condition.

Absurdism refers broadly to all types of literature, including fiction, short stories, and poetry (such as Beckett's) that deal with the absurdity of being human. When we speak of the Absurdist plays composed by these playwrights, this movement is specifically known as 'The Theatre of the Absurd' - a term assigned by Martin Esslin in his 1960 essay of the same title.

But how did we arrive at this understanding of Absurdism?

Origins and influences of Absurdism in literature

Absurdism was influenced by several artistic movements, writers, and playwrights. For example, it was influenced by Alfred Jarry's avant-garde play Ubu Roi which was performed only once in Paris in 1986. The play is a satire of Shakespearean plays that uses bizarre costumes and strange, unrealistic language while providing little backstory for the characters. These bizarre features influenced the artistic movement of Dadaism, and in turn, the Absurdist playwrights.

Absurdist literature is not satire. (Satire is the critique and ridicule of someone or something's flaws.)

Dadaism was a movement in the arts that rebelled against traditional cultural norms and art forms, and sought to communicate a political message with an emphasis on senselessness and absurdity (in the sense of ridiculousness). Dadaist plays heightened the features found in Jarry's play.

Out of Dadaism grew Surrealism, which also influenced the Absurdists. Surrealist theatre is also bizarre, but it is distinctively dream-like, placing an emphasis on creating theatre that would let the audience's imaginations run free so that they can access deep inner truths.

The influence of Franz Kafka (1883-1924) on Absurdism cannot be overstated. Kafka is known for his novel The Trial (published posthumously in 1925) about a man arrested and prosecuted without ever being told what the crime is.

Also famous is the novella 'The Metamorphosis' (1915), about a salesman who wakes up one day transformed into a giant vermin. The unique strangeness found in Kafka's works, known as 'Kafkaesque', was hugely influential to the Absurdists.

The philosophy of Absurdism

The philosophy of Absurdism, developed by French philosopher Albert Camus, emerged as a response to the problem of the Absurd, as an antidote to nihilism, and as a departure from existentialism. Let's start at the beginning - of the philosophical Absurd.

Nihilism

Nihilism is the rejection of moral principles as a response to the meaninglessness of existence. If there is no God, then there is no objective right or wrong, and anything goes. Nihilism is a philosophical problem that philosophers try to tackle. Nihilism presents a moral crisis since if we abandon moral principles, the world would become an extremely hostile place.

Existentialism

Existentialism is a response to the problem of nihilism (the rejection of moral principles in the face of life's meaninglessness). Existentialists argue that we can deal with the lack of objective meaning by creating our own meaning in our lives.

Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

The Danish Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard's ideas of freedom, choice, and the absurd were influential to the existentialists and the absurdists.

The absurd

Kierkegaard developed the idea of the absurd in his philosophy. For Kierkegaard, the absurd is the paradox of God being eternal and infinite, yet also being incarnated as the finite, human Jesus. Because the nature of God makes no sense, we cannot believe in God through reason. This means that to believe in God, we must take a leap of faith and make the choice to believe anyway.

Freedom and choice

To be free, we must stop blindly following the Church or society and confront the incomprehensibility of our existence. Once we acknowledge that existence makes no sense, we are free to determine our own paths and views for ourselves. Individuals are free to choose whether they want to follow God. The choice is ours to make, but we should choose God, is Kierkegaard's conclusion.

Although Kierkegaard's aim is to reinforce the belief in God, this idea that the individual must evaluate the world and decide for themselves the meaning of it all was highly influential to the existentialists, who argued that in a universe without meaning, the individual must make their own.


Albert Camus (1913-1960)

Camus saw Kierkegaard's decision to abandon reason and take a leap of faith as 'philosophical suicide'. He believed the existentialist philosophers were guilty of the same thing, as, instead of abandoning the pursuit of meaning altogether, they gave in to the need for meaning by claiming that the individual should forge their own meaning in life.

In The Myth of Sisyphus (1942), Camus defines the absurd as the tension that emerges from the individual's pursuit of meaning in a universe that refuses to provide evidence of any meaning. So long as we are living, we will never know if God exists because there is no evidence of this being the case. In fact, it seems as though there is plenty of evidence that God doesn't exist: we live in a world where terrible things happen that don't make any sense.

To Camus, the mythical figure of Sisyphus is the embodiment of the human struggle against the absurd. Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill every day for eternity. Every time he gets to the top, the boulder will roll down and he will have to start again the next day. Like Sisyphus, we must struggle against the meaninglessness of the universe without any hope of succeeding in finding meaning in it.

Camus argues that the solution to the suffering brought on by our obsessive need to find meaning is to abandon the quest for meaning altogether and embrace that there is no more to life than this absurd struggle. We should rebel against meaninglessness by enjoying our lives with the full knowledge that they have no meaning whatsoever. For Camus, this is freedom.

Camus imagines that Sisyphus has found happiness in his task by abandoning illusions that there is any meaning to it. He is condemned to it anyway, so he might as well enjoy it rather than be miserable trying to find purpose in his turmoil:

One must imagine Sisyphus happy."

- 'Absurd Freedom', Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus (1942).

When we talk about the philosophy of Absurdism, we are talking about the solution that Camus presents to the problem of the absurd. Whereas, when we talk about Absurdism in literature, we are not talking about literary works that necessarily subscribe to Camus' solution - or try to provide any solution at all - to the problem of the absurd. We are simply talking about literary works that present the problem of the absurd.

Absurdism examples: The Theatre of the Absurd

The Theatre of the Absurd was a movement identified by Martin Esslin. Absurdist plays were distinguished from traditional plays by their exploration of the absurdity of the human condition and the anguish this absurdity inspired at the level of form and plot.

Although the early Absurdist plays of Jean Genet, Eugene Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett were mostly written around the same time in the same place, in Paris, France, the Theatre of the Absurd is not a conscious or unified movement.

We'll be focusing on two key Absurdist dramatists, Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)

Samuel Beckett was born in Dublin, Ireland, but lived in Paris, France for the majority of his life. Beckett's absurdist plays had a huge impact on other Absurdist playwrights and on the literature of the absurd as a whole. Beckett's most famous plays are Waiting for Godot (1953), Endgame (1957), and Happy Days (1961).

Waiting for Godot (1953)

Waiting for Godot is Beckett's most famous play and it was hugely influential. The two-act play is a tragicomedy about two tramps, Vladimir and Estragon, waiting for someone named Godot, who never comes. The play has two acts that are repetitive and circular: in both acts, the two men wait for Godot, another two men Pozzo and Lucky join them then leave, a boy arrives to say that Godot will come tomorrow, and both acts end with Vladimir and Estragon standing still.

There are many different interpretations as to who or what Godot is or represents: Godot could be God, hope, death, etc. Whatever the case, it seems that Godot is likely representative of some sort of meaning; by believing in Godot and waiting for him, Vladimir and Estragon find comfort and purpose in their depressing lives:

Vladimir:

What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is clear. We are waiting for Godot to come... Or for night to fall. (Pause.) We have kept our appointment and that's an end to that. We are not saints, but we have kept our appointment. How many people can boast as much?

ESTRAGON:

Billions.

- Act Two

Vladimir and Estragon are desperate for purpose, so much so that they never stop waiting for Godot. There is no purpose in the human condition. While waiting for Godot is as useless as our search for meaning, it does however pass the time.

Eugene Ionesco (1909-1994)

Eugene Ionesco was born in Romania and moved to France in 1942. Ionesco's key plays are The Bald Soprano (1950), The Chairs (1952), and Rhinoceros (1959). In the latter, a small French town is blighted with a plague that turns people into rhinoceroses.

The Chairs (1952)

Ionesco described the one-act play The Chairs as a tragic farce. The main characters, Old Woman and Old Man, decide to invite people that they know to the remote island where they live so that they can hear the important message that the Old Man has to offer humanity.

Chairs are laid out, and then the invisible guests begin to arrive. The couple make small talk with the invisible guests as though they were visible. More and more guests keep coming, more and more chairs are put out, until the room is so invisibly crowded that the old couple has to shout at each other to communicate.

The Emperor arrives (who is also invisible), and then the Orator, (played by a real actor) who will deliver the Old Man's message for him. Glad that the Old Man's important message will finally be heard, the two jump out of the window to their deaths. The Orator tries to speak but finds that he is mute; he tries to write down the message but only writes nonsensical words down.

The play is intentionally enigmatic and absurd. It deals with themes of the meaninglessness and absurdity of existence, the inability to effectively communicate and connect with one another, illusion vs. reality, and death. Like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, the couple takes comfort in the illusion of meaning and purpose in life, as represented by the invisible guests that fill the void of the loneliness and purposelessness of their lives.

Where in these plays can you spot the influence of Alfred Jarry and Franz Kafka as well as the Dadaist and Surrealist artistic movements?

Characteristics of Absurdism in literature

As we have learned, 'absurdity' means much more than 'ridiculousness', but it would be wrong to say that absurd literature doesn't have a quality of ridiculousness. Absurdist plays, for example, are very ridiculous and strange, as the two examples above have illustrated. But the ridiculousness of absurdist literature is a way of exploring the ridiculous nature of life and of the struggle for meaning.

Absurdist literary works express the absurdity of life in aspects of plot, form, and more. Absurd literature, particularly in absurdist plays, are defined by the following unusual features:

  • Unusual plots that don't follow conventional plot structures, or entirely lack a plot. The plot is composed of futile events and disjointed actions to express the futility of life. Think of the circular plot of Waiting for Godot, for example.

  • Time is also distorted in Absurdist literature. It is often hard to pin down how much time has passed. For example, in Waiting for Godot, it is hinted that the two tramps have been waiting for Godot for fifty years.

  • Unusual characters without backstories and defining characteristics, who often feel like stand-ins for all of humanity. Examples include The Old Man and The Old Woman from The Chairs and the mysterious Godot.

  • Unusual dialogue and language are composed of clichés, nonsensical words, and repetitions, which make for disjointed and impersonal dialogues between characters. This comments on the difficulty of effectively communicating with one another.

  • Unusual settings that reflect the theme of absurdity. For example, Beckett's Happy Days (1961) is set in a post-apocalyptic world, where a woman is submerged up to her shoulders in a desert.

  • Comedy is often an element in Absurdist plays, as many are tragicomedies, containing comic elements like jokes and slapstick. Martin Esslin argues that the laughter that the Theatre of the Absurd evokes is freeing:

It is a challenge to accept the human condition as it is, in all its mystery and absurdity, and to bear it with dignity, nobly, responsibility; precisely because there are no easy solutions to the mysteries of existence, because ultimately man is alone in a meaningless world. The shedding of easy solutions, of comforting illusions, may be painful, but it leaves behind it a sense of freedom and relief. And that is why, in the last resort, the theatre of the absurd does not provoke tears of despair but the laughter of liberation.

- Martin Esslin, The Theatre of the Absurd (1960).

Through the element of comedy, Absurdist literature invites us to recognise and accept the absurd so that we can be liberated from the constraints of the pursuit of meaning and simply enjoy our meaningless existence, just as the audience enjoys the comic absurdity of Beckett or Ionesco's plays.

Absurdism - Key takeaways

  • The Absurd is the tension created by humanity's need for meaning and the universe's refusal to provide any.
  • Absurdism refers to literary works produced from the 1950s to the 1970s that present and explore the absurd nature of existence by being themselves absurd in form or plot, or both.
  • The Absurdist movement in the 1950s-70s was influenced by the dramatist Alfred Jarry, the prose of Franz Kafka, as well as the artistic movements of Dadaism and Surrealism.
  • The Danish 19th-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard came up with the idea of the Absurd, but it was fully developed into a philosophy by Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus thinks that in order to be happy in life we should embrace the Absurd and enjoy our lives anyway, rather than trying to find meaning. The pursuit of meaning only leads to more suffering because there is no meaning to be found.
  • The Theatre of the Absurd explored ideas of absurdity through unusual plots, characters, settings, dialogues, etc. Two key Absurdist dramatists are Samuel Becket, who wrote the influential play Waiting for Godot (1953), and Eugene Ionesco, who wrote The Chairs (1952).

Absurdism

Absurdism is the belief that the human condition is absurd because we can never find objective meaning in the world because there is no evidence of a higher power. The Absurd is this tension between our need for meaning and the lack of it. The philosophy of Absurdism, as developed by Albert Camus, also carries with it the belief that, because the human condition is so absurd, we should rebel against absurdity by abandoning the quest for meaning and just enjoying our lives.

In literature, Absurdism is the movement that took place in the 1950s-70s, mostly in the theatre that saw many writers and playwrights exploring the absurd nature of the human condition in their works.

Absurdist literature is characterised by the fact it explores the absurdity of life in an absurd way, with ridiculous, unusual plots, characters, language, settings, etc.

Both the philosophy of Nihilism and Absurdism seek to address the same problem: the meaninglessness of life. The difference between the two philosophies is that the Nihilist comes to the pessimist conclusion that life is not worth living, whereas the Absurdist comes to the conclusion that you can still enjoy what life has to offer, even if there is no purpose to it.

An example of Absurdist literature is Samuel Beckett's famous 1953 play, Waiting for Godot in which two tramps wait for someone named Godot who never comes. The play explores the human need to construct meaning and purpose and the ultimate pointlessness of life.

Final Absurdism Quiz

Question

What is the Absurd?

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Answer

The tension created by humanity's need for meaning and the universe's refusal to provide any.

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Question

During what time period did literature of the Absurd develop?

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Answer

In the 1950s-1970s.

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Question

What is Absurdism in literature?

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Answer

Literary works produced from the 1950s to the 1970s that present and explore the absurd nature of existence by being themselves absurd in form or plot, or both.

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Question

Absurdism is a unified movement that started in 1950s Paris, France.

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Answer

True

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Question

Who identified the movement of 'The Theatre of the Absurd'?

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Answer

Martin Esslin in 1960.

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Question

Which of the artistic movements did NOT directly influence Absurdism?

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Answer

Dadaism

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Question

What is Ubu Roi (1896)?

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Answer

Ubu Roi is a play by the avant-garde playwright Alfred Jarry that had a huge influence on the Absurdists, through its use of unrealistic, bizarre language and the lack of backstory given to characters.

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Question

Why is Franz Kafka an important influence on Absurdism?

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Answer

The strangeness of his fiction (inThe Metamorphosis (1915) and The Trial (1925)) influenced the Absurdist playwrights.

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Question

What is Søren Kierkegaard's idea of the Absurd?

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Answer

The paradox of God being eternal and infinite, yet also being incarnated as the finite, human Jesus.

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Question

What are Kierkegaard's ideas of freedom and choice?

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Answer

Individuals should not follow the Church or any other system of meaning blindly. Confronted with the absurd nature of reality and God, the individual needs to make his own choice about whether or not he will follow God.

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Question

Why does Camus disagree with Kierkegaard and the Existentialists?

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Answer

Both Kierkegaard and the Existentialists give into the pursuit of meaning, rather than liberating themselves from it by accepting that there is no meaning to be found.

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Question

How is the mythical figure of Sisyphus representative of the human struggle against the Absurd?

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Answer

Sisyphus is condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill every day for eternity. Every time he gets to the top, the boulder will roll down and he will have to start again the next day. Like Sisyphus, we must struggle against the meaninglessness of the universe without any hope of succeeding in finding meaning in it.

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What is the solution that Camus offers to the problem of Absurdity?

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Answer

Don't chase meaning, just enjoy your life while you can!

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Who is Samuel Beckett?

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Answer

An Irish Absurdist playwright.

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Question

What happens in Waiting for Godot (1953)?

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Answer

Trick question, the answer is nothing. Just kidding! Two tramps wait around for a man named Godot who never comes. Oh, it is nothing...

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Question

What three key Absurdist plays did Eugene Ionesco write?

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Answer

  • The Bald Soprano (1950)
  • The Chairs (1952)
  • Rhinoceros (1960)

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Question

Absurdist literature is characterised by...?

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Answer

Unusual plots, unusual use of time, unusual characters, dialogue and language, and setting. Comedy is also used to help us laugh at the absurdity of the human condition.

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